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A man works on his laptop as he waits in line outside the Apple Store for ipad launch in New York April 2, 2010.

JESSICA RINALDI

When a New Brunswick woman disappeared earlier this year, the RCMP and her family made widely publicized pleas for help finding her, with her name and photograph blogged, tweeted and forwarded online to the world.

The woman surfaced in March, having escaped after allegedly being kidnapped and sexually assaulted, and the same information that had been so freely available was now banned from publication to protect her identity.

Of course, echoes of the woman's name still appear in old news stories and social media entries, many from well-meaning users who posted the case in hopes of helping police. Even the RCMP didn't remove her name and video from its website until a couple of weeks after a court first ordered a limited ban, instead waiting until it was expanded by the judge.

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Experts say the litany of ways to disseminate information online - and the nearly impossible task of erasing it completely - raise new questions about the effectiveness of publication bans and demonstrate the need to update them for the new reality of the Internet.

"In those kinds of cases, putting the genie back in the bottle has always been a little bit artificial, particularly in a community where everybody knows who it is," says Vancouver media lawyer Dan Burnett, who also teaches at the University of British Columbia journalism school.

"With the Internet, the artificiality of that is amplified to the point that it becomes kind of absurd."

There are a number of reasons courts may impose publication bans to either ensure a fair trial or protect a victim or vulnerable witness, and there are several scenarios in which a ban might cover information that has already been made public.

They include cases such as the New Brunswick kidnapping, in which a missing person turns out to be a victim of a crime whose name is then banned from publication.

Young offenders are also covered by such bans. That became an issue several years ago in Medicine Hat, Alta., where media reported the name of a missing 12-year-old girl after her parents and brother were found dead. The girl's name was then covered by a ban when she was accused - and later convicted - of killing her family.

In some criminal cases, details of the accused's background, such as a criminal record, are routinely published when a trial is far in the future, but can't be revealed during the trial itself. The old stories, however, are still be accessible online.

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In all of those examples, observers say content posted before the ban could violate it if not removed. At the very least, they call into question how effective a ban can be if the information is already out there.

Because of that, Burnett says publication ban laws need to be revised with the Internet in mind. Judges should be given more discretion to consider both the need for a ban and how effectively it can be enforced.

"Sometimes, you'll want to do what you can to ensure a young person or victim is not subjected to worse, but the idea of trying to undo what's happening is pretty tough," he says.

"Bans need to be discretionary and need to be tailored to the circumstances. If you have a ban on the identity of somebody whose face has been all over the media for the past month, the judge has to look at that and say, 'There's not a lot of point. We'll do other things to try to protect this person."'

Similar issues can surface in libel cases, such as a University of Victoria climate researcher's recent lawsuit against the National Post. Andrew Weaver is demanding the newspaper not only remove articles from its own website but also help him have the stories removed from other sites. He alleges the pieces were designed to destroy his reputation internationally.

Dean Jobb, author of "Media Law for Canadian Journalists," says the law has yet to catch up with technology, although there are signs that could be changing.

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Jobb says there have been several rulings on publication bans that acknowledge the difficulties posed by the Internet, and a case currently before the Supreme Court of Canada about automatic bans on bail hearings might provide further guidance.

"The Internet has almost forced a piece-by-piece reconsideration of how you deal with these things, which isn't being done in any systematic way and will be done incrementally as cases come forward," says Jobb, an associate professor at the University of King's College in Halifax.

He says courts might conclude the purpose of a ban should be to prevent a name or fact from being repeated again, rather than erasing what's already been said.

"What the courts can do is prevent any further widespread dissemination in the media, but they can't close the door after the information's gone out. That may not be exactly what the law is supposed to do, but that's the practical reality now."

Still, Jobb says the challenges posed by the Internet and social media don't mean publication bans should be abandoned completely.

"The fundamental responsibility of a publisher for what they publish on the Internet doesn't change," he says. "Just because it may be tough (to enforce) doesn't mean the law doesn't apply."

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